Hank Stuever TV Preview: Strong, Engaging Women on 'Good Wife,' 'Cougar Town'

The ABC comedy stars TV sitcom alum Courteney Cox ("Friends") as Jules Cobb, a divorced woman trying her hand at dating -- all over again. Video by ABC
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Watching Courteney Cox emerge from the shower in the opening scene of the ridiculous and surprisingly funny "Cougar Town" to stand naked before the mirror and poke at her (or her body double's) belly, face and loose skin, I realized that the women in my life have already made me aware of the current lexicon of aging's many horrors. That arm flab? It's called "bingo wings." (Though I'm partial to "tuna subs.")

"What is this?" Cox asks, pinching her elbow skin in disgust. "[Am I] a farm animal?"

A sex-kooky cougar mom and a scandal-visited political wife would not typically have much to say to one another. But trust in the gods of the network television universe to form an unlikely, sisterly union, debuting two excellent new shows with strong female leads -- in CBS's drama "The Good Wife," Tuesday night at 10, and in ABC's comedy "Cougar Town," Wednesday at 9:30.

But first, a cold flash: Most of the women I know are getting old. Who cares? They care. They talk about it constantly, because they live in a culture that talks about it constantly, where men only get better with age and women only get . . . exactly what the media serves them. What do you say back? ("You're not old, you're 42!" Which is so not what they want to hear.)

Television, which was never forgiving on this matter, seems to be even less so now, as it has finely honed its programming into a barrage of angst-filled, maniacal women in their late 30s and 40s who are having terrible times in a new century of desperate housewives, "real" housewives, extreme makeovers, imploded marriages, biggest losers. It doesn't help when you throw in the constant mixed messages from the Almighty Oprah and the kaffee-klatschers of "The View," et al., who always prescribe uplift! and self-esteem! even as they sow the latest seeds of worry about everything having to do with health, security, beauty, wisdom, family and sex.

"The Good Wife" comes across with manners and sophistication; "Cougar Town" may be the most deliciously profane network show ever made. (If there's already been a sitcom in which a teenager discovers his mom performing oral sex by the pool, do let me know.) Yet each has a similar undercurrent: Women today are more than ever uncertain of themselves, nearly broken, worried about senescence, intimidated by the youth around them and depleted by various cads. In each show, the stereotypes are somewhat improved upon and given more depth.

In "The Good Wife," Julianna Margulies (who is 43, since I brought it up) plays Alicia Florrick, whose husband, Peter Florrick, is the state's attorney in Chicago and has been discovered having sex with prostitutes.

That he is played by Chris Noth (Mr. Big from our culture's ur-text on desperate women in desperate times, "Sex and the City") is of no balm to poor Alicia. In the opening scene, she stands there unflinchingly by his side at the news conference where he admits his sins. For as long as "The Good Wife" lives (which I hope is at least a season or more), the series will be a rumination on our continued fascination for the silent spouses of the famously unfaithful: What is she thinking?

Bigger question: What does she do now? She slaps him after the news conference, in the hallway with the fire exits and the catering supplies -- slaps him hard. He goes to jail -- not for the sex, but on corruption charges. (I predict the show's writers will spring him soon.)

Now, six months after the scandal, the Florricks have lost their big house, he's doing jail time, and Alicia's mother-in-law (Mary Beth Peil) has moved into the apartment to give unhelpful advice and help raise the Florricks' two teenagers, who now have to go to -- oh, no -- public school, where everyone has seen dad's scandalous YouTube clips.

Here, the creators of "The Good Wife" decided to go more Silda Spitzer than Dina Matos McGreevey, and nowhere near the theatrics of Jenny Sanford. Alicia goes back to work as a junior associate in a big law firm, thanks to her friend Will (the charming Josh Charles from "Sports Night"), who knew Alicia back from their days at Georgetown Law, though that was a million-billion years ago, as she's constantly being reminded, because she's soooo old. "It's been 13 years since I was in a courtroom," Alicia confides to the firm's ace investigator. "I was 12 years old [then]," her colleague replies.

"You have some prominent baggage," sniffs a sinister senior partner, played by Christine Baranski, who then points to a picture of herself with Hillary Clinton. "But if she can do it, so can you." The show basks for a moment in the smart dialogue and stylish frisson of "L.A. Law." Margulies rediscovers the luminescence and intelligence that made her so watchable on "E.R.," and never misses a beat.

But this is a CBS drama, which means Alicia must be thrust into hokey crime-procedural land, representing a murder defendant on the firm's pro-bono side. Too much of "The Good Wife" is preoccupied with discovering easy clues and gotcha courtroom antics. This doesn't leave enough time to show us the state of the Florricks' marriage and household, and perhaps the writers are pacing themselves. They want us to know she's competent, but I'd watch her do anything except hunt for hair samples and missing security-camera tapes.

And what does Alicia Florrick have in common with Cox's Jules Cobb, a divorced mom and real estate agent in the fictional suburb of Cougar Town, Fla.? Both characters spend their debut episodes alternately apologizing for and embracing their age.

As Jules, Cox (who is now 45) attacks her role with tooth and nail, knowing full well it's the best thing she's had since "Friends." It's a thousand times more ribald, too, as Jules decides the time has come to have sex once again:

"What's that scar from?" a paramour asks a bra-and-pantied Jules.

"I got knifed when I was a kid," she quips. (And then: "It's from my C-section.")

Prepared to merely endure "Cougar Town," I instead burst out laughing several times, watching as Jules endures one humiliation after another: writing alimony checks to her loser ex-husband; finding out that her picture on her real-estate ad serves as masturbatory material for a neighborhood boy; accompanying her younger assistant (brilliant Busy Philipps from "Freaks and Geeks") to a nightclub where two cocktails turn Jules into a lecherous drunk.

"How come you never laugh at my jokes?" she asks her perpetually mortified teenage son (Dan Byrd).

"Because they make me sad," he tells her.

It is sad, this confused state of American womanhood. As "The Good Wife's" Alicia, Margulies swallows this outrage and just coolly, beautifully seethes. In "Cougar Town," Jules lets everyone have it, in a wicked ongoing diatribe.

The Good Wife (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on CBS; Cougar Town (30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

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